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Romney plugs for-profit colleges, whose leaders bolster his run

Chip Litherland/New York Times

With for-profit colleges under siege in Washington, Mitt Romney’s full-throttled endorsement for Full Sail puts him squarely in the middle of a political debate.

WASHINGTON - At a town-hall-style meeting in New Hampshire last month, listeners pressed Mitt Romney on the soaring cost of higher education. His solution: Students should consider for-profit colleges like the little-known Full Sail University in Florida.

A week later in Iowa, Romney offered an unsolicited endorsement for “a place in Florida called Full Sail University.’’ By increasing competition, for-profit institutions like Full Sail, which focuses on the entertainment field, “hold down the cost of education’’ and help students get jobs without saddling them with excessive debt, he said.

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Romney did not mention the cost of tuition at Full Sail, which runs more than $80,000, for example, for a 21-month program in video game art.

Nor did he mention its spotty graduation rate. Or, for that matter, that its chief executive, Bill Heavener, is a major campaign donor and a cochairman of his state fund-raising team in Florida.

That team, Romney said last fall when he appointed Heavener, “will be crucial to my efforts in Florida and across the country.’’

Beyond his fund-raising role, Heavener has committed his own resources to the cause. He and his wife have each given the maximum $2,500 to the campaign, and he gave $45,000 to Restore Our Future, a super PAC run by former Romney aides to bolster his campaign. The chairman of the private equity fund that owns Full Sail University - C. Kevin Landry of TA Associates - gave $40,000 to Restore Our Future, records show.

Romney has received financial support from other segments of the for-profit college industry as well, and he was quick to praise the industry as an affordable alternative to traditional colleges.

With for-profit colleges under siege in Washington over accusations that they defraud students, Romney’s full-throttled endorsement puts him squarely in the middle of a political debate over them and dovetails with his strong belief in a free-market system that thrives on competition.

But to industry critics and some education experts, Romney’s stance appears at odds with much of the available evidence on the cost and performance of for-profit institutions.

“Except with some rare circumstances, their prices are more expensive than community colleges and even four-year institutions,’’ said Donald E. Heller, dean of education at Michigan State University, who has studied for-profit colleges. “It’s hard to argue against the idea of competition, but anybody who knows the business will tell you that most of the for-profits are not competing on price.’’

The Romney campaign declined to comment on the financial support it has received from executives in the for-profit college industry and the candidate’s support for Full Sail University.

Full Sail has generally been regarded more highly than many other institutions in the for-profit college industry as a whole, which has been the target of withering criticism in the last few years in the wake of federal investigations into fraudulent marketing practices, poor academic records, and huge loans assumed by students ill-prepared for the expensive programs.

Still, the school has attracted its share of criticism on Internet discussion boards and YouTube postings from its own students and alumni, with some alumni even deriding it as a “scam’’ because of what they described as high tuition, inadequate career training, and difficulties in transferring credits to other schools.

Some of Full Sail’s 37 degree programs have suffered from high loan burdens and low graduation rates, data show.

The $81,000 video game art program, for instance, graduated just 14 percent of its 272 students on time and only 38 percent at all, while the students carried a median debt load of nearly $59,000 in federal and private loans in 2008, according to data that the federal Education Department now requires for-profit colleges to disclose in response to criticism of their academic records.

While other Full Sail programs also showed low graduation rates, some fared much better. For instance, the master’s curriculum in entertainment business, a yearlong program with a $36,245 tuition, graduated 80 percent of its students, nearly 63 percent of them on time. (Many of the school’s degree programs provided no data at all because Full Sail said students had not yet completed them.)

David Halperin, who until this month ran Campus Progress, a liberal advocacy group focused on student issues, said he was mystified by Romney’s praise for Full Sail.

“A school offering a program with a 14 percent on-time graduation rate is not a model for higher education in this country,’’ he said. He questioned whether Romney was putting the business interests of his political donors at Full Sail ahead of the interests of students.

Heavener, the Full Sail chief executive, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. An assistant said he was traveling and was not available.

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